Charlie Crist has a real race on his hands.
Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio says that in the last three months he raised nearly $1 million for his underdog campaign for the U.S. Senate. That's a huge improvement over Rubio's previous fundraising and puts a big crack in the aura of inevitability surrounding Gov. Crist's U.S. Senate campaign.
"While the governor obviously is the frontrunner, it is no longer far-fetched to see how Marco Rubio wins this race,'' said Republican consultant John Weaver. "National and state conservative leaders — from the grass roots to real opinion leaders — are beginning to rally behind Rubio as their 'cause' for this election cycle. If this continues, and Rubio builds on this fundraising success, we could see a huge upset forming in Florida."
Crist has not released his latest fundraising tally, but supporters are speculating he will raise at least $2 million. In the last fundraising quarter, Crist raised a record $4.39 million, and Rubio just $340,000.
But Rubio's long-shot candidacy for the Republican nomination has been generating growing excitement among grass roots activists and conservative national media figures skeptical of Crist's sunny populism.
Conservative columnist George Will predicted Rubio will win and William F. Buckley's National Review magazine put Rubio on its cover under the headline, "Yes, HE CAN." Karl Rove donated $1,000 last weekend, a contribution that won't even show up in the latest report. And Rubio has picked up endorsements from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C, and former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
Meanwhile, county Republican parties across the state have been holding "straw polls" with activists overwhelmingly supporting Rubio over Crist.
"This is a strong statement about the direction you believe our Republican Party, our state and our nation should take," Rubio said in a statement Tuesday about his fundraising "It is also an encouraging reminder about how piece by piece, supporter by supporter and idea by idea, we are building a movement that will only continue growing and gaining momentum as we move forward."
The hefty fundraising quarter establishes Rubio's viability and is likely to spur more interest in the 38-year-old Cuban-American from Miami.
"We're certainly going to take a closer look at getting involved in this race,'' said David Keating, executive director of the conservative Club for Growth, which is capable of steering more than $1 million in donations to favored candidates. "If we come to the conclusion that we think it's a winnable race and we make that recommendation (to support Rubio), I wouldn't be surprised if our members donated that kind of money."
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said Rubio's growing credibility could generate interest from conservative donors across the country.
"This is the only race in a major state that has a clear-cut campaign for the future of the Republican Party,'' Norquist said. "It may be the Reaganite candidate vs. the sort of John McCain candidate."
Rubio still has huge hurdles in taking on a popular governor backed by much of the Republican U.S. Senate leadership. A Quinnipiac University poll in August showed Crist beating Rubio among Republican voters 55 percent to 26 percent.
"Nobody's writing off Rubio any longer, but I think he's still in a let's-wait-and-see position,'' said Republican consultant John Dowless of Orlando. "He has a long way to go because Florida is not cheap to run a campaign in."
The actual campaign finance reports are not due until Oct. 15, so it's unclear where the donations are coming from or even how much money Crist or Rubio have available to spend on the primary.
"I'm happy with where we are,'' Crist, 53, said Tuesday, declining to comment on Rubio's fundraising. "We'll release our number shortly, and I'm pleased."
Democratic pollster Tom Eldon said Rubio poses a real threat to Crist in the primary — unless the governor's financial advantage is massive. In a state as big as Florida, it can cost $1.5 million to advertise on statewide TV for a week.
"If Crist has a 10-to-1 advantage, I'm sorry but Rubio can't survive,'' said Eldon, who suggested some high-profile endorsements could even the playing field. "If (former Gov.) Jeb Bush endorses Rubio, that completely changes the financial dynamic of this race. At that point Rubio stops being the darling of the National Review and becomes the darling of Jeb Bush, and Jeb can outraise the National Review any day of the week."
Times/Herald staff writers Beth Reinhard and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.